After a week unlike any other in a season unlike any other, the Browns gave their fans a result like no other.
The Browns on Sunday clinched their first trip to the playoffs since 2002, and they did it with a victory over their biggest rival. It wasn't easy — it never is against the Steelers — but Cleveland pulled away in the second half and then hung on just long enough to get what it needed — a 24-22 victory that locked up one of three Wild Card spots for the postseason.
"I am really proud of that football team," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I am proud of the finish. That is a team that battled some adversity through the week and through the game. Guys stepping up that did not know they were going to be playing, showing some resilience. I am really proud of those guys.
"I'm really just happy for our fans. They deserve this. They've been waiting for this and we're happy to deliver that to them."
Cleveland's 11-5 season is its best since the franchise returned in 1999, and the Browns needed every single one of those victories in a loaded AFC. The Browns, as the No. 6 seed, will face the Steelers, the No. 3 seed, in the first round of the playoffs next Sunday at 8:15 p.m.
"It is not over," Stefanski said. "We have work left to do.
"I like this football team. I like how this football team works. I like how this football team responds when their back is up against the wall. We will just keep grinding on this thing, and we will wait for the reflection much later."
Stefanski showed that appreciation in his post-game speech to the team, first allowing the team's longest-tenured player, G Joel Bitonio, speak and then presenting a game ball to Dee and Jimmy Haslam. Stefanski's 11 wins are the most by a Browns coach in their first season since the franchise's namesake, Paul Brown, won 12 in 1946.
"It's just the guy he is," Bitonio said. "He was definitely happy and you can tell he has a little bit different emotions. It is almost robotic sometimes the way he goes about his business because he is just the same guy, he has his standards, and he was appreciative though of everybody's work and just from a top down, everybody's work, and that is what he was appreciative of, and then us playing as a team. You could tell he was very appreciative of that."
Baker Mayfield sealed this one with a 3-yard run on third-and-2 with 1:10 to play and the Steelers out of timeouts. It was a fitting way to do it on a day in which Mayfield used his feet more than ever, as he finished with a career-best 44 rushing yards to go along with his 17-of-27 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown.
"I truly do mean this and everyone in our locker room honestly believes it – we are not satisfied. We expected to be here," Mayfield said. "We have worked extremely hard to get here. We are excited to have a chance to be the playoffs.
"The feeling of walking off the field and the energy in the stadium, playing 'Cleveland Rocks' I can see an old school video going on and I can look up and see old school highlights of players like (Browns QBs) Brian Sipe, Bernie Kosar and some old-schoolers on there and for it to be that loud with the limited number of fans, it is a special moment for us."
It was yet another gritty, mostly clean performance from Mayfield, whose improvement from 2019 to 2020 provided one of the biggest reasons behind the Browns' five-win improvement from the previous year.
"He wanted this one, I can promise you that," Stefanski said. "He was already on to this game on that airplane. Just in talking to him, I could see that determination. He works very, very hard at his craft, which I appreciate. I thought he did a great job of running around and making plays with his feet today. That play at the end, just put the ball in his hands and said, 'Go get this thing.'"
Nick Chubb gave the Browns a lead they wouldn't relinquish with his 47-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and finished with 108 yards — his sixth 100-yard game of the season.
Jarvis Landry, the heart and soul of Cleveland's offense, hauled in five big catches for 51 yards. Rashard Higgins caught Mayfield's longest pass of the day, a 42-yarder, and finished with two catches for 55 yards.
The Steelers, despite playing without a number of key players and starters, including QB Ben Roethlisberger, didn't lay down. They never do in this storied rivalry, and they nearly came back from a 15-point deficit to spoil Cleveland's postseason dreams.
"I know they are missing some guys, but the same can be said for us," said Myles Garrett, referencing the absence of five defensive players — LB B.J. Goodson, LB Malcolm Smith, CB Denzel Ward, CB Kevin Johnson and S Andrew Sendejo to the reserve/COVID-19 list.
"I am proud of how we responded ... That is what we have to do. We have to hold them to either three points or none. We have to make it difficult for everything they get. If we can do that, we give our offense a chance and allow them to get on the field and hopefully put up more than what they are doing."
Three seconds into the fourth quarter, Cleveland extended its lead, 24-9, after a Landry 3-yard end-around run for a touchdown. The Steelers, though, came right back. Pittsburgh found the end zone for the first time with 10:07 to play, when Mason Rudolph tossed a prayer up to Chase Claypool, who fought off Terrance Mitchell to secure the 28-yard touchdown.
Those kind of big passes gave the Browns fits all game and kept the Steelers in it. Rudolph completed 22-of-39 passes for 315 yards and hit chunk plays to all three of his top receivers — Claypool, Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
After the Browns failed to convert a fourth down on the ensuing possession, Pittsburgh went right back to work. After a long completion to Johnson, Rudolph found Smith-Schuster on a 2-yard touchdown pass with 1:23 to play. Cleveland dug deep on the two-point conversion attempt, as Rudolph's pass to Claypool sailed out of the end zone, and TE Stephen Carlson fell on the ensuing onside kick.
In need of one first down to seal the victory, Mayfield gave it to the Browns with his 3-yard scramble on third-and-2.
"It is a moment I will definitely never forget," Mayfield said.
The Browns, leading by just a point after a Steelers field goal midway through the third quarter, gave themselves some much-needed breathing room late in the third quarter with their first touchdown since their first possession. Mayfield's 28-yard scramble — his longest run since midway through his rookie season — put the Browns inside the red zone, and he capped the possession with an easy touchdown pass to TE Austin Hooper.
They took control on the following possession.
M.J. Stewart, inserted into a major role after the loss of CBs Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson to the reserve/COVID-19 list, intercepted Rudolph at midfield and returned it to the Steelers' 20-yard line. It was the Browns' first forced turnover since Week 13 and it couldn't have come at a better moment.
"M.J. is very ball aware," Stefanski said. "He does that in practice. He has done that in games for us before. We really zeroed in on that turnover margin being a big key today so that right there led to points."
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the 2020 season into a day-by-day grind, and the Browns never felt it more than this past week leading up to their biggest game of the season.
After losing a number of key players on short notice before last week's loss to the Jets, the Browns saw more, including five key players on defense, land on the list throughout the week. On top of the missing players, the Browns dealt with their facility being closed on multiple days and didn't practice at all Thursday. Multiple coaches, including wide receivers coach/pass game coordinator Chad O'Shea and offensive line coach Bill Callahan, were also sidelined.
"It is that resilience piece which we have been talking about forever. We just do not talk about it; I think the guys embodied it," Stefanski said. "To have a bunch of guys step up, I am really proud of those guys. They have done it all year. They really have. You had guys coming off of an injury and you had guys up and active for the first time maybe all year, and that is what it is going to take this season. You have to have the next man up mentality, and we are trying to live it."
The Browns certainly didn't look affected when Sunday's game kicked off. They came out firing and took a lead they wouldn't give up.
Chubb put the Browns on top early with one of his best runs of the season. He burst to the right, raced down the sidelines, juked All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and raced into the end zone for a 47-yard touchdown. The run put him over 1,000 yards for the second straight season, making him the first Browns player to do so since Jamal Lewis (2007-08).
"Nick had that one early where he was just running so hard and was really not going to be denied," Stefanski said. "I just thought that the guys were leaning on him."
The Browns have leaned on each other all season long. It's been a year like no other, and the Browns delivered one of their best seasons in a generation.
For just a few more moments Sunday, Stefanski said he would be able to cherish it before his game-planning began for a rematch with the Steelers.
"All of these wins, you savor them," Stefanski said. "We will make sure to do that before the clock strikes midnight, and then we are on to the next one. I will be with my family. I will sit there on the couch and have the TV watch me."